It’s Groundhog Day in Scotland on Humza Yousaf’s first day as leader of the SNP. He hasn’t even been formally voted in as First Minister, yet his first statements are a call for a Section 30 order – allowing the Scottish parliament to call for an independence referendum – and a pledge that he will appeal against Westminster’s blocking of the Gender Reform Act. 

Both policies were part of the reason that Nicola Sturgeon stood down yet, despite winning the SNP leadership election by the slimmest of margins – 52-48 – the already unpopular (-20 rating among the electorate in a recent poll) new leader is determined to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor and continue to fight battles that nobody is interested in.

What he has failed to recognise is that the leadership vote provided a crystal clear sign that the SNP is an extremely divided party, with half broadly centre-left (Yousaf’s supporters) and half centre-right (Kate Forbes’). So his initial decision to simply repeat the Sturgeon formula will not cut it. The veil has been lifted and the SNP is facing enormous dissent. 

The old line of “wheest for indy” (which translates as “keep quiet about our many delivery failings because the only true goal is independence”) won’t work and the new SNP will have to be more transparent, consensual, and deliver policies which aren’t solely focused on independence.

The health service, education, record drug deaths, transport, justice, the police, the economy are already on the back burner for the new SNP leader who clearly believes that although Sturgeon spectacularly failed to deliver on these policies, he will be able to succeed despite his record of failure in office.

What could go wrong? The SNP has lost its two most experienced and senior politicians in Sturgeon and deputy leader John Swinney, its long-standing Chief Executive Peter Murrell (married to Nicola Sturgeon) has gone, chief of staff Liz Lloyd has also departed, along with the head of media, Murray Foote. All of the key players of the last few years are gone, and so without experienced hands – and let’s be honest, they made a bit of a hash of it anyway – and without any history of success in his three major briefs of transport, justice, and health, and without anyone on the backbenches who seems remotely credible, you have to wonder whether Yousaf has been set up to fail and fail spectacularly.

After the announcement of Yousaf’s appointment, the grins on the faces of the Labour and Tory parties said it all. Suddenly it was Christmas again with the gaffe-prone gift of Humza Yousaf in place. How long before the murmuring starts in the SNP? With a win by the slimmest of margins, Yousaf is announcing policies that play to only one half of the SNP, and to none of the wider electorate.

There are already rumours that he has 18 months until the party loses seats in the general election before he will be asked to stand down. But again, the problem is, who would be better? Kate Forbes is the choice of the wider electorate, but the Greens didn’t like her, so that settles it.

However, anyone who thinks the departure of the Greens from frontline Scottish politics is anything but a plus is seriously deluded. The Greens, as Ash Regan pointed out, were the tail wagging the dog and their popularity within the SNP rank and file is minimal. Almost everything they stand for is met with bewilderment and dismay, but it is their policy of a wellbeing economy over an actual economy is where they separate most spectacularly from the majority and is the most worrying for Scotland’s future.

Many people in Scotland felt that the SNP was past its peak a few years ago but the view now is that the party is on a collision course with an electorate that was prepared to give Sturgeon the benefit of the doubt but have little or no time for Yousaf. It is unlikely there will be a honeymoon period and most in the media and among the political class are simply waiting for the first major mistake, the first tin-eared speech, the poorly judged response. 

The bumpy ride is set to continue for the SNP and the fact that Keir Starmer has visited Scotland four times in recent weeks is a clear sign that Labour believes it will be the biggest benefactor from the SNP’s self-inflicted destruction. 

Whatever happens, this is undoubtedly the greatest shake up in Scottish politics since the SNP overtook Labour in the polls nearly 20 years ago. Proof if proof was needed that all political eras come to an end and often more rapidly than anyone expected.

Colin Wright is an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist. His writing has appeared in The Scotsman, the Herald, the Times, the Telegraph, the BBC, the New Statesman.

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